How is it that we know so little about tenant farmers if they supposedly played such a central role in the rural communities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? With the encroachment of residential areas into the countryside, we have lost much of the tangible evidence of their existence. By linking and analysing records from Lady Alford’s Tenant Book (1850-1) transcribed by Frances Kerner, a Constables Accompts book (1748-1819) transcribed by Linda Rollitt, census records (1851) andKelly’s Directory (1855),more has been learnt about the families whose livelihoods depended upon this activity. The area investigated in this study centres on the extensive Ashridge estate, once the seat of the resident nobility.

Map of Ashridge Estate

The seventh Earl of Bridgewater (1753-1823) was interested in new farming methods and kept a close eye on his vast estate. At a meeting in Aylesbury, he is noted as saying that he was “shocked to find the boys knew nothing of farming; nothing but the straw-plaiting and lace-making their mothers had taught them” and he at once set out “to root out their effeminacy and instill into them manly principles” by setting up an agricultural school in Little Gaddesden which continued for many years (D. Coult, A Prospect of Ashridge, p.167).

Lady Alford’s Tenants

While Lady Alford awaited the outcome of the inheritance of Ashridge following her husband’s death, she commissioned a tenant book to be drawn up (probably 1850-1), reflecting her concern for the ‘wretched population’ and she planned to improve their lot. On this list were 519 tenants with details of location, names, rent, acreage, religion, status, number of children and years as tenant (not necessarily in the same location). The list does not include occupation, but we can assume that those with substantial acreage were tenant farmers, confirmed by matching records with the 1851 census.

Farming publicist James Caird in his English Agriculture in 1851-2 (pp.455-6) suggested that 100 acres was on the borderline between difficulty and viability. In the 1851 census for the Berkhamsted region, there were 32 farmers with 100 acres or more, that is 65% of the 49 farms in the region that mentioned acreage in the occupation, compared with just 33% nationally. Furthermore, of those same high acreage farms, 15 were run by Lady Alford’s tenants. They were some of the most substantial farmers in the region and would have eagerly adopted the new ideas of ‘high farming’ and reaped the benefits for themselves and the local community.

Landlords provided the capital for permanent improvements like roads, drainage, fences and enclosures whilst the tenants financed implements and livestock. Although they did not own the land, the tenant farmers were among the most prosperous in the community and they were designated the same social status as teachers, surveyors and police inspectors, just below the gentry and landowners. For example, Lady Alford’s three most affluent tenants between them ran farms covering nearly 2,000 acres just across the border in Ivinghoe Buckinghamshire and they paid £1,817; about 9.3% of Lady Alford’s annual income from her tenants’ rents.

Farming Families

Of the 42 wives listed in the 1851 census, 9 were recorded as ‘Farmers wife’, three as ‘Domestic’ and the remaining left blank. Would it be safe to assume that the wives diligently took care of domestic arrangements, the dairy and cheese-making and perhaps kept pigs and chickens? Not necessarily. A century earlier, in 1748, Pehr Kalm wrote in his diary (W.R. Mead, 2003, pp.122 & 127): “The entire domestic duties of the women folk in these parts consists of scarcely anything else than of preparing food, (which they usually do very well), of washing and scouring dishes and floors (for in matters of cleanliness they are most particular), of washing clothes, and of expertly employing needle and thread”. He went on to say that their evenings were spent sitting idly round the fireplace; they relied on the village baker for their bread and manufacturers to save them from weaving and spinning and they left all outside chores to their men folk and “it is therefore no more than deserving that the men should seek a little consolation” of a pint or two of beer.

The farmers of 1851 had 57 daughters living at home (24 were over 12 years old) who most likely followed the example set by their mothers; only two were recorded with occupations (as straw plaiters) and ten as ‘farmers daughter’. Of 62 sons at home, 20 were over 12 years old; of these only four were recorded specifically as farm workers, one was a grocer and a further seven were denoted ‘farmers son’ with one of them ‘employed at home’. If we assume that the latter group helped out on the farm, this means that 65% were employed. This contrasts with the wider community of 506 sons over 12 years old, where 424 (84%) were employed. It would seem that this period of high farming meant that farmers and their families enjoyed a good standard of living, allowing them to be largely self-sufficient with abundant supplies of food grown in the area.

In Philip Betts’ study Marriage Alliances, Household Composition and the Role of Kinship in Nineteenth-Century Farming (2001, p.37) in Frittenden in the Vale of Kent, he refers to Jean Robin’s observation that marriages could occur as a result of “certain farmers wish[ing] to cement relations with a working colleague; because marriages were sought with families which held a comparable social status; or simply because the offspring… were likely to have known each other from childhood”. Conditions were certainly primed for similar alliances to be forged among the Ashridge tenant farmers. Over a fifth of their servants were housed alongside their own families and some of the young ploughboys, shepherd boys and horse keepers bore the names of other farmers in the neighbourhood.

There is an example of marriage alliances in one local family which would have fulfilled all of Robin’s criteria. The tenant book showed that William Hollingshead was running the 187 acre Norcott Hill farm. The 1841 census included his wife Hannah and daughters Jane (who was two) and Lucy Elizabeth (ten months) at Marlin Chapel farm, where he was working at the time. Meanwhile, William must have been well acquainted with Charles Prudames who was a farrier and ironmonger living in Berkhamsted High Street with his wife Sophia and three-year-old son Alfred. By 1851 Charles was a veterinary surgeon and his son followed that profession later. Alfred married Lucy in 1864 and Jane’s second husband was Alfred’s uncle David William Prudames, who carried on his father’s ironmongery trade and was a tenant of Lady Alford. This would have helped to ensure that the family businesses were retained for the next generations.

Sixteenth century Duncombe Farm appeared in the 1851 census for Buckinghamshire (as 454 acres and 50 acres common) and in Lady Alford’s Tenant Book (538 acres), run by William Bigg. The influential Duncombe family lived at neighbouring Barley End farm (between Aldbury and Ivinghoe) for many generations (perhaps following an earlier move from Duncombe farm). William Duncombe (born 1663) married Elizabeth, daughter of William Child of Chesham.According to Ralph Duncombe’s book Duncombe Family (1982), now in the Buckinghamshire Record Office, William’s eldest son John was a lawyer who married an MP’s daughter. John was appointed Deputy Steward of the Manor of Berkhamsted in 1732, in succession to his father.

The Constables Accompts book contains successive entries referring to John’s brother, William. In 1751 charges were levied by the constables for “going to Aldbury after Mr Duncomb’s man” and in 1765 “For taking a madman to Mr Duncombs, paid a man to assist”. John’s brother Thomas Duncombe acted as executor to their sister Ann’s estate and he wrote a letter with a black wax seal and family crest in 1774 (now held by Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society). After the death of John’s daughter Rebecca, Barley End farm passed to her husband Edward Lucy’s family who sold it to the Earl of Bridgewater in 1809. Meanwhile, Norcott Hill Farm on Northchurch Common (later run by William Hollingshead) was the likely site of Norcott Manor, which was held in 1817-18 by Brandreth Duncombe, when he and his wife Elizabeth conveyed it to John Duncombe senior (W. Page, Parishes: Northchurch or Berkhampstead StMary, 1908, pp.245-250). In the 1851 census, Barley End farm was inhabited by vagrants ‘eleven persons unknown who slept in an outbuilding’.

On the southern edge of the Ashridge estate was Coldharbour farm. In 1618 the Duchy of Cornwall enclosed 300 acres of Northchurch Common to ‘improve’ the land (and increase the rent) “What became known as the Coldharbour Enclosure was the start of a long feud between village and town”. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the name of the 266-acre farm which was run by Alfred Cooley in 1851. Meanwhile, John and Keziah Chappell were living in Frithsden with four children including James Chappell. According to the International Genealogical Index (IGI), two of James’ children were born at Coldharbour in 1868-9.

Scott Hastie included a summary of ‘old historic’ farms in his book Berkhamsted: An Illustrated History (p.38). Cross Oak Farm no longer exists; Robert Ward paid two pounds six shillings for 23 acres in 1757, it was run by William Geary in 1851, but it was Thomas Geary who appeared in Kelly’s Directory for 1855. Kingshill was a more substantial farm, but has been replaced by a cemetery; William Chappell paid a tithe of fifteen pounds eight shillings for 159 acres in 1778. Perhaps this was the same William Chappell who made frequent appearances at vestry meetings and was a constable in 1768-9, according to the Constables Accompts book; he may have been the ancestor of John and James Chappell of Cold Harbour farm. Little Heath Farm close to Potten End was larger still and was run by Joseph Chennells, who employed 16 men on his farm of 235 acres in 1851; it is now a nursery.

There were many old farmsteads in Northchurch, as recalled by Bert Hosier in his self-published personal memoir of the village, Hedgehog’s Northchurch (pp.33-80). Rosemary Cottage on the High Street in Northchurch was once known as Norris’s farm, named after the family who ran a large acreage and for a time made bricks in the Shootersway area. There seems to be little known of Shootersway farm, as discovered by a local newspaper (Hemel Today, May 2009), which reported that the farm is believed to be around 300 years old; the road where it was situated was called Sugarsway in the eighteenth century and stretched right through to Bourne End where the name Sugar Lane is still used. Shootersway was reputed to be a lane used by highwaymen as it was away from the main road and there were rumours of a phantom stagecoach clattering past the farm. Compelling as these stories might be for newspapers, we can ascertain that in the 1851 census, Henry Saunders lived at Shootersway farm with his wife, two children, a visitor and four servants. In 1841, he lived at the farm with his parents and five servants.

The history of two more farms may not have been of interest if they had not been connected with Peter the Wild Boy, found by a farmer in a forest near Hanover in Germany in 1725 and brought back to England as a curiosity and to receive instruction arranged by the Royal family. He was entrusted to the care of one of Queen Caroline’s ladies when he proved incapable of learning and she arranged for him to be cared for by James Fenn at Haxters End farm. On James’ death, Peter was moved to Broadway farm at Bourne End, where he died in 1785. This farm also had the distinction of being the first in England on which red clover and swede turnips were grown. Haxters End farm was run by Thomas Friend in 1851 and also featured in Kelly’s Directory for 1855.

As for tangible evidence of the existence of farms, there is at least one agricultural building worthy of note which would have been used by one of Lady Alford’s tenant farmers, Noah Newman, who employed 5 servants and 14 labourers to run the 310-acre farm at Castle Hill. Adjoining the farm was the Great Barn, on the scale of a tithe barn.It was thought to be used for communal storage by the surrounding farms in the seventeenth century. A survey was conducted by the Duchy of Cornwall in 1805 and the barn was described as “an immense pile of building consisting of 8 bays…” and we know from Edward Buckler’s drawing of it in 1830 that it was a substantial stone-built barn with features similar to a church, including buttresses and thin lancet windows. The stone walls were demolished in the mid-nineteenth century and so began a slow deterioration of the replacement Victorian brick walls, wooden cladding and roof. The building was deemed unsafe and may have collapsed had it not been sympathetically developed as a residential property in 2006.

The contribution of farmers to the community in this area cannot be underestimated. In 1748, Kalm praised the wheat grown in the area as producing the best flour in England and this was due to the willingness of local farmers to take up new ideas, especially for fertilising their land. Of those people whose occupations were reported in the 1851 census and not including scholars, 16 per cent were employed directly on the farms (agricultural labourers, farm labourers, farm servants), 27 per cent were dependent on the produce from the farms (straw plaiters, hay binders), two per cent were suppliers to farmers (wheelwrights, carpenters, sawyers), two per cent worked with the animals (grooms, blacksmiths, horse keepers, shepherds, cowmen, dairy workers and a vet). This means that nearly 48 per cent of the working community interacted with farmers or earned their living because of them. Many people would have been called upon to help out with the harvests and everyone in the neighbourhood would have benefited from the provision of fresh food to the local markets.


Did the tenant farmers don their best suits and visit church on Sundays? If so, did they defer to their Anglican landowner? Due to Lady Alford’s diligence in requesting personal information for her tenant book, we can investigate these questions.

In 1851 there was a national census of church attendance based on the voluntary returns made by individual incumbents and the results were analysed by Horace Mann, the organiser of the 1851 population census. He found that only one in two adults, not including the aged, sick or employed, attended church or chapel. This led to lamentations at the godlessness of the working classes until later analysis concluded that Mann’s figures must have included a substantial attendance by the working classes, being that upper and middle classes constituted only one fifth of the total population (E. Hopkins, Childhood Transformed: Working-class Children in Nineteenth Century England, 1994, pp.146-7).

As for Lady Alford’s interest in religion, in 1867 she commissioned St John the Evangelist church in Lyneal cum Colemere to be built in memory of her son and she presented a new pulpit for the church of St Peter and St Paul in Little Gaddesden as part of its restoration in 1877. Church vestments were mentioned in her book Needlework as Art(1886).

Of Lady Alford’s 60 tenant farmers with more than 100 acres, 64 per cent were Anglican and 28 per cent dissenters. It was noted that the dissenters were in possession of some of the higher acreage farms (including Christopher Buckmaster of Ivinghoe with 762 acres) so their strident voices may have held sway over the religious views of nearly a third of the tenant farming population and associated workers. This proportion of the farming community was higher than in the second half of the seventeenth century, when about a fifth of the people of Berkhamsted were dissenters, according to Birtchnell (Short History, p.38). Most were Baptists, who met for worship in their homes until a meeting house was built in Water Lane Berkhamsted in 1722. An even higher proportion of the people of Northchurch were dissenters and Baptist churches were built there and in Potten End. The local gentry must have tolerated non-Anglican worship, because a house in Little Gaddesden, even closer to Ashridge, was certified for protestant dissenters in 1812.

From Advanced Diploma essay Farmers of Ashridge Estate and the Berkhamsted Region, 1748-1870